Birding Excitement in Washington, PA
On Friday, 3/1, Frodo & I were walking around Peters Lake when we saw our first birder/photographer. Many others would follow. When I asked if he’d sen anything interesting, he answered, yes, a Hooded Merganser and an Arctic Long Billed something or other that I’d never heard of.
I’d heard of a merganser but didn’t really know what it looked like. So, when we got home I checked the Cornell U website ‘ All About Birds’. Soon as I pulled up the pictures, I thought, I’ve seen that bird. The bird has a ‘hoodie’ that it can hold raised :
or folded back :
It occurred to me that if i saw it far out on the lake, without field glasses, with the hoodie folded back, I might mistake it for a Wood Duck :
They’re both quite common in the region. And since they’re both tree cavity nesters they would occupy a similar habitat. But if they’re common in the region, what’s so exciting about that ? Nothing, it seems. It was the second bird everyone was flocking to see.
After a few more birders passed, I’d gotten the name right. The ‘Arctic’ Long Tailed Duck is what everyone wanted to see. So I pulled up it’s profile and pictures :
This is one tough little bird. It’s described as a small sea bird. Their summer nesting range is across Canada & Alaska, from the Arctic Circle north to lands end at the Arctic Ocean. And some will winter along the northern coasts, south to Delaware Bay in the east, and to Washington State on the west coast. But some of these eastern birds will simply move to open water off the coasts of Greenland, for example. For the Winter ! Crikeys mate.
And by Saturday the word had really gotten out. A small ‘anti-tank company’ of birders descended on the lake. I called them that because they were all carrying cameras the size of a small bazooka. This bird was likely heading north again from eastern coastal waters, but finding one on a small lake in W PA is so rare that it even brought out Robert Mulvihill, Ornithologist, from the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. We chatted a bit & I asked, jokingly, if there was a ‘birder bat signal’ that brought all these people out. As a matter of fact there is, he said. Turns out, there are a number of ‘list serves’ that will send out an alert, by various means, to subscribers when something noteworthy is sighted. Who knew.
By Sunday it was gone. Journeying on. But the Mute Swan was back again. So, always something interesting to see out there.
I’ve been stalking this bird for weeks. Stalking, but not harassing. Never got close enough for that. And really, only got close enough for half decent pix last week. I now realize that I’ve been seeing a solitary swan when driving by various nearby lakes for a couple of years. Saw it, but then discounted what my eyes were seeing because ‘ swans don’t live around here’. About sums up the human condition. But when I did some research on swans after seeing a trio of migrating Tundra Swan on Peters Lake in November, I realized that the imported European Mute Swan could indeed live around here. It was imported to ‘beautify’ parks & ponds and as a non-migrator would tend to stay in place. Nature being what it is, however, enough birds ‘escaped’ from this form of captivity that there are naturalized, wild breeding populations along the East Coast and around the Great Lakes. It is described by various sources as ‘invasive but contained’.
Oh, BTW, my tentative ID of the Tundra Swans has been confirmed by some naturalist friends:
Guess I forgot to tell you that I put one of your Tundra Swan photos up on iNaturalist, as blurry as it was, to see if those guys were willing to confirm them as Tundra Swan and within a day a fellow from northeast PA confirmed them as Tundra Swan. That’s what I believed them to be as well given location and timing.
When first spotted, this solitary Mute Swan was swimming at the far end of the upper pond, probably 70 yards from my vantage point. Using my iPhone with it’s maximum 2X zoom and some enlargement, this is the best I could get:
After looking at the pictures I realized that there was a small object & wake in front of the swan. Probably following one of the mallards common there.
Finally, after a longer cold spell, the upper pond froze over & the swan moved to the larger, lower lake. It was weeks before it settled into a small inlet near the walking trail and I could get the following shot :
After my experiences of the last few months, I’m starting to see the limitations of the iPhone for any kind of nature photography. I’m not trying to capture birds in flight or lions on the Serengeti Plain but it’s not realistic to expect to see wild creatures at selfie/close-up distances unless you’re at a zoo. And I’m not interested in the artistic side of photography. But, if I see something new or interesting swimming 50 yards out in the lake, I want to be able to take a photo good enough for ID purposes.
After researching, I’ve found various companies offering clip on lenses for the iPhone camera that will add fisheye, wide angle, macro and zoom capabilities. But each of those lenses cost about $90. And the only one I care about, the zoom, only comes with 3X. On top of the phones 2X, that gives a total of 6X zoom. More, but not really enough. I’m seriously considering a ‘good beginners quality’ Canon, digital, point & shoot, that can give up to 40X zoom. Now, you’re talking zoom.
If any readers have camera suggestions I’d welcome them. Keep you posted.
A Christmas Bird Count Adventure
It’s 6:50AM on a Saturday morning (Dec 15) and I’m heading to my first Christmas Bird Count. It’s cold, dark, and raining. Yippee.
What’s a Christmas Bird Count ? It’s a program administered by the National Audubon Society that uses volunteer birdwatchers to take a census of birds in the Northern & Western Hemisphere winter. Yep, that’s right. Folks go out into the cold winter woods to count numbers & species of birds. Then they report this to the Audubon Society.
Dating back to Dec 1900, this is described as the longest running citizen science survey in the world. Now in year 118. The Audubon Society also partners with several other organizations in the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
According to a Facebook post by Robert Mulvihill of the National Aviary, there are 15 designated counting circles in SW PA. Each is headed by a Compiler who, as the name implies, compiles the data for that particular circle & sends it up the ladder. I’m joining the Washington Circle where the Compiler is Thomas Contreras, a Professor in the Biology Department at W & J. That’s where we’ll meet. Several other volunteers show up there. Others will be heading out directly from home to their pre-designated area in the circle. Others will be counting at bird feeders. No doubt they’ll be warmer & drier than we’ll end up.
After short discussions I’m partnered with a life -long birder. And ‘partnered’, in the birding sense only since he’s the senior managing partner in a prestigious law firm and I’m an unpaid summer intern just finishing up pre-law. (See ‘gofer’ or ‘nephew’, whichever applies.) Although, in this case, my partner was more than companionable. And if you’re going to spend 3 hours walking in the cold rain with someone, companionable is the least that you hope for.
We got our assigned area and headed out. We ended up south of Washington in the area around Prosperity & Bells Lakes, crisscrossing Ten Mile Creek or some tributary several times.
A few things I learned from my birding partner :
There’s a big difference between a ‘walk in the woods’ and a birders ‘walk in the woods’. The latter is much, much, much, slower. In 3 hours in the field my partner estimated that we’d only walked about 1.5 miles. After all, if you’re looking for ” little brown jobs ” (an informal term referring to the large families of small plain colored birds) hiding in the brush you have to look long & hard.
There’s also some unique vocabulary & techniques :
“Pishing” is simply the act of saying “pish,pish,pish” several times in the hope that a curious bird will poke it’s head out of the brush. You do it in the same tone you might use in saying “Psshh” to someone. Not too loud. It didn’t help flush any birds that day but, later, it would get my dogs attention every time.
“Squeaking” is another form of pishing. To squeak, nosily kiss the back of your hand. This makes a noise, you hope, like a bird scolding a predator. It can entice other birds to join in.
You can also get something called a “squeaker”. A little noise maker to do something similar. Although when I searched “birders squeaking noise” I got a video of a parrot that made a squeaking sound when squeezed. Followed by an endless series of videos of parrots making funny sounds. Who knew?
The binoculars recommended were typically described in range of 843 or 845 to 1050. The 8 or 10 refers to magnification. And there’s a tradeoff. The lower magnification gives a wider field of vision while the higher magnification offers a narrower field. For hand held binoculars, and for following a bird in flight, a wider field is very important. And water proof binoculars with good lens optics do not come cheap. A truly good pair can cost $1500-$2000.
Well, it rained the entire time we were out. And the temperature hovered around 46F. Chilling. About 2 hours into the field trip I decided I better put my gloves on or I wouldn’t be able to grip the keys for my cars ignition.
Did the birds cooperate? Not so much. In that weather any bird with an instinct for self -preservation was hunkered down in the thickest brush it could find, trying to stay warm and dry.
But, will I do it again? Absolutely. It is a way to learn something new while doing something worthwhile. And if you’re lucky, that’s as good as retirement gets.
Two Local Christmas Bird Counts
If you’re a birder, or curious about what birders do, or maybe just looking for an outdoor activity and to meet some new people interested in nature, consider the following:
Washington, PA Bird Count, Dec.15
Contact is Tom Contreras at email@example.com
I am happy to announce that the Washington PA’s 45th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count will be held on Saturday, 15 December, 2018.
Field participants will meet at 7:30am in 305 Dieter-Porter Hall (W&J College) at the corner of College St. and East Maiden St.
Field participants should be able to park in the Grant Street lot across from Swanson Hall at the corner of Grant St. and Lincoln St. or in the lot directly behind Dieter-Porter Hall (access to lot from College St.).
It’s important that those of us doing field counts meet to discuss coverage and travel within the count circle.
If you absolutely can’t make it in to W&J that morning, but would still like to participate in the field count, please contact me the week before the count so we can arrange proper coverage for the count circle.
I need to know who will be helping with the field count, so please contact me by email or phone (724-223-6118) to let me know if you can help with the field count.
If you know of anyone else who would like to participate, have them email me.
For those of you watching your bird feeders on the day of the count, I have attached a checklist which you can fill out and send back to me sometime before 20 January, 2018. Remember to only record the maximum number of individuals of a particular species you’ve observed at one time—this will help to avoid double-counting of individuals.
Thanks to all of you for your help with this year’s count.
Let’s hope the weather cooperates.
To see results from previous years, go to http://netapp.audubon.org/cbcobservation/ and enter “PAWS” as the “Count Code”. Results go all the way back to the first counts for this area in the 1970’s.
Also, my cell phone number is 724-413-2310 in case there are any weather-related issues on the day of the count and you want to contact me to determine the status of the count.
Buffalo Creek event in Washington County, Dec.16
Buffalo Creek in Washington Co. on Dec. 16th.
If interested in participating contact Larry Helgerman, coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-508-032.